Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Authoring ideas

As a sometimes writer of blogs, white papers and even a few books, I understand the challenge of facing a blank page, trying to form the words into meaningful and insightful sentences.  A lot of times the concepts and ideas that sound so good in my head get misplaced and mis-translated on the page or simply don't ring with the same clarity when written that they seemed to have when I thought about them.  Writing in any form is a challenge, and increasingly I think writing is very similar to innovation.  Writing, after all, is the act of dreaming up something new to say about something old, bringing new concepts or new stories to light in a new way.  Writing, like innovating, is creating.

What's more, writing, especially stories, takes real creativity.  Tolstoy wrote that there are only two basic story lines:  a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.  When you think of the diversity of stories, the creativity it takes to make them compelling and the range of story types, characters and plots, you can easily see that writing is creativity and innovation.  So perhaps we innovators can learn something from good writers.

What good authors know about writing

It turns out that many writers don't think they know much about writing.  Joe Fassler, who wrote the article that prompted this post, says that many authors find writing difficult, frustrating and challenging.  Even those that you would think are "experts" describe their struggles.  Steven King, Amy Tan and others talk about writing and re-writing, often rethinking and reworking their ideas and stories over and over again.

Reading Fassler's article made me think of my own writing and how it relates to innovation.  There are a number of interesting parallels.  First, when writing an article, blog or story, the author must have an interesting story to tell, a new perspective, and make the story as interesting as possible to the potential reader. In the same way an innovator must target customers who have needs, and shape ideas into new products or services that customers want to buy.

Second, authors will tell you (and they do so repeatedly in the article) that first drafts are for discovery and experimentation.  These drafts identify gaps and weaknesses and potential areas of opportunity or discovery.  Amy Tan notes that she throws out 90 to 95 percent of her initial work.  Innovators face the same challenge, but often have very different expectations.  In business we think because we have detailed processes and deep experience, we should get ideas right the first time.  Instead we should learn to diverge and converge and iterate until the ideas achieve their correct shape, but time and cost pressures rarely allow innovators to fail, restart and reshape ideas.

Finally, the article says that the artistic process never gets easier. Even experienced authors struggle with phrasing, story lines and plots.  They constantly work at their craft.  Innovators could learn from this dogged determination.  Most innovators arrive unready and unseasoned, attempt to perform an innovation activity quickly, declare victory once they've defined a new product or service, and return to their regular jobs.  They don't hone their innovation skills and are surprised when innovation is difficult or requires learning, discovery and iteration.

Paralyzed by your thoughts

One author described being "paralyzed by her thoughts".  This statement made me think of many people in idea generation or brainstorming sessions who are unable to generate ideas in the moment, placing far too much pressure on themselves to get an idea right.  The pressure we place on ourselves as writers or innovators is often detrimental to creative thinking.

The author of the paper sums it up nicely when he says "I’ve learned, bigger feats, bolder ideas unfold over the long haul—in the space where success feels uncertain, even unlikely".  Good innovators recognize the agony and humility in this statement, but the best ideas do take time and require hard work. 

One final quote that I think captures both writing and innovating:  "I'll keep at it stubbornly and gladly until the job is finished".

Innovators and authors have similar jobs and similar challenges.  Most authors write because of a passion for a story or an idea, and learn to iterate and rewrite/rework.  Most true innovators also have a burning passion for an idea or a problem, and most successful innovators are more than willing to describe their experiments, their failures and their iterations that ultimately led them to success.  We need to understand how these two jobs are similar, and what authors and innovators could learn from each other.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:31 AM


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